The Mitzvah of American Military Service

Sermon delivered December 9, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


When I was a younger adult, I must say that the phrase “Jewish soldier” or “Jewish sailor,” even “Jewish officer in the United States Armed Forces,” seemed like an oxymoron to me. I hadn’t even heard the term, “airman” at that time. In the post-Vietnam era, folks like me, who did not live in a military town, had little if any contact with the military. Before moving to San Antonio, I never personally knew another person in my age group who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The truth be told, my peers and I were raised with contempt for the military. Oh, I suppose that we had vague knowledge of the critical sacrifices made by the “greatest generation” in World War II. We were raised, though, aware of the anti-military sentiments that grew up during the Vietnam War. When I was a child, and the Vietnam draft was in effect, the people I knew who were of age to be drafted went to college. They all did things like what our current President and his predecessor both did to avoid risking their lives in Vietnam.

Throughout my adulthood, of course, we have lived in the age of the all-volunteer Armed Services. In my younger years, my peers and I regarded the military as a choice that, unfortunately, some people had to make for the sake of their own futures. Poor people could escape cycles of poverty by enlisting. Middle class folks could get a better deal for a better education by becoming officers. I imagined that a few extremists would join the military out of a sense of patriotic duty mixed with reactionary politics. For the most part, though, I dismissed the idea that a person would make a truly voluntary decision to join the military.

Today, I am blessed to know, and to embrace as friends and congregants, any number of men and women who take great pride in their military service. To be sure, they enlisted or sought a commission for a variety of reasons. None, though, seem to me to be extremists. Clearly, many of them did volunteer for service with whole hearts, and not primarily because of the personal benefits they would draw from the military.

I still wonder, though, about the very concept of an all-volunteer military. In the Torah, military service is far from voluntary. Throughout the last three books of the Bible, the Israelites are in the wilderness, preparing to conquer the Land that God has promised to them. Essentially, they are readying themselves for military action, with Divine support. We hear a great deal about who must serve and who may not serve. Both the obligation to serve and the exemption from service are compulsory. Our ancestors do not seem to have been offered choices in this regard.

One particular narrative illustrates the point best. Two tribes decide that they wish to dwell on the east side of the Jordan River, in land that is now part of the Kingdom of Jordan, technically outside the Land of Israel. Moses is torn by the request. On the one hand, the land is good, and he understands that the tribes are exhausted after forty years of desert wandering. On the other hand, Moses is offended at the notion that the two tribes would not join the others in the military battle for the Promised Land.

Ultimately, God, Moses and the two tribes strike a deal: The eligible fighters of these tribes will serve as the shock-troops, the front line forces, clearing the way for the other tribal warriors to follow. Then, once the Holy Land is occupied, the two tribes will be permitted to return to the east side of the Jordan River, to join their families, to tend to their livestock, and to settle their chosen land.

The message is clear: All the Jewish people are required to fight. Military service, at least in the case of conquering ancient Israel, is a mitzvah. A mitzvah, to be clear, is a religious obligation, a duty, a commandment, a requirement. Though some would translate “mitzvah” as “good deed,” no mitzvah is optional or voluntary. For our biblical ancestors, if a war was worth fighting, all eligible soldiers would be required to join the battle.

Post-biblical Jewish military history isn’t as grand. The Hanukkah story is the exception that proves the rule. Later, Jewish legions are conquered by the Romans, time and again. Then, for nearly two millennia, Jews didn’t do anything like what we know as military service. Yes, from time to time, one ruler or another might press them into action as canon fodder. That curse was neither a mitzvah nor voluntary!

Two historical developments reversed the situations in two very distinct ways.

In Europe, emancipation and enlightenment brought Jews into the citizenship of countries where they had lived for centuries, but always as foreigners. Jewish leaders realized that military service would be an important component of our people’s full acceptance into society. For example, the Assembly of Jewish Notables in France assured the Emperor Napoleon that Jews would vigorously fight in the French military, to the point of full willingness to kill or wound fellow Jews of enemy nations. Indeed, countless Jews went to their deaths on both sides of the First World War.

The other dramatic development affecting Jewish military service, of course, has been modern Zionism. A significant part of early Zionist ideology was the notion that could only reclaim our people’s strength by defending ourselves. Jews, not only in Israel, but here in America and throughout the world, took great pride in Israeli military victories in 1948 and 1967.

Moreover, we know that Israeli military service is compulsory. While a minority is exempt, military service is required of almost all Israelis, two years for women and three for men, upon graduation from high school. Israelis, therefore, rightly perceive each military engagement as an act of every citizen of the State.

Nearly universal military service has a tremendous effect on Israeli society. Young Israelis of all segments of society come to know one another. Also, because they complete military service first, Israelis are older, more mature, and more goal-oriented when they enter university education. Toni’s and my niece, Ruth, who completed her service in the last year, is infinitely more self-assured and adult than she was a scant two years earlier, and certainly more so than the average young American adult.

Here in the United States, Jews have served in the military since our nation was founded. I have a book, which purports to list all the Jews who served in the United States Armed Forces, from the American Revolution through the Spanish-American War. My own ancestors fought in both the Revolution and the Civil War. My family’s veterans of the latter war no doubt referred to it as “the War of Northern aggression.”

Of course, it goes without saying that American Jews fought in World War II with great sense of purpose. The younger among us may imagine that American Jews’ primary motivation for fighting in that war was to bring an end to the Holocaust. The truth, though, is that awareness of the Holocaust was limited, and most American Jews fought in the U.S. military as patriotic Americans, to free the world of the despotism threatening freedom everywhere. Even had it not been compulsory, American Jews would have understood military service to be a mitzvah during the Second World War. I have seen no greater testimony to that purposiveness than in the magnificent video testimonies of San Antonio Jewish veterans of that war, a project spearheaded by our Temple’s own Oscar Ehrenberg and Mickey Roth.

Today, America’s volunteer service men and women are fighting to save the Iraqi people from tyranny and violence, with great personal sacrifice, thousands of miles from home. We are constantly told to “support our troops.” What isn’t at all clear, though, is how we are to support our troops.

For some, backing our military requires us not to question the war effort. That response is entirely un-American.

Others support our service men and women by wearing flags in their lapels or by placing yellow ribbons on their automobiles. While the signs are nice, and likely comforting to military families, symbolic acts cannot replace real support.

The worst form of pseudo-patriotism is to extol the need to support our troops, while we do nothing that truly assists this war effort. If this war in Iraq is worth fighting, then all Americans should be willing to join in the sacrifice. From the first day of the war, our President has not asked a single soul, outside of our voluntary service men and women and their families, to sacrifice. How, then, does he demonstrate what he says: that this war effort is every bit as crucial to freedom as World War II itself. How, then, can we say that we are supporting our troops?

The time has come for us to look back to Torah, and to look across the sea, to Israel, as a role model. The time has come for every American to view service as a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, incumbent upon every citizen of this nation.

Perhaps we would fulfill a portion of that requirement, if we joined in paying the financial costs of the war. Let the President and the congress tax us all, as our predecessors were taxed during World War II, to pay for the fight.

Perhaps we would fulfill a portion of the mitzvah, if we demanded that our leaders enact a national energy policy that would force sacrifice upon us all. Oil profits have paid the salaries of the terrorists in the world of Arab and Islamic extremism. We must begin today to reduce our dependence upon foreign oil, even if we must pay much more at the pump, even if we must drive less, even if we must choose less fun automobiles, even if we must impact the American wilderness in ways we would rather not.

But we will only truly fulfill the mitzvah, if every American of military age is required to serve our country. Perhaps the military doesn’t need every man and woman, and most likely, military service isn’t a good fit for everyone. Other methods of national service would serve largely the same purpose, for the good of our country and for the good of American youth.

When I am asked whether I think the U.S. should leave Iraq, my answer is: America should either be in Iraq or out of it. As a nation, we must decide that this war is so worth fighting that we are all willing to engage. Alternatively, we should leave Iraq, admitting that this war is not worth our sacrifice. I would vote for us to be in Iraq, and in the Sudan, and wherever the American people can build freedom, fight terror, and end tyranny and suffering. But I would never endorse a plan by which only a select few make such dramatic sacrifice, while the rest of us go about our business, as if our nation were not at war.

Perhaps, even as a young adult, somewhere deep in my subconscious, I harbored such a thought, that military service is a mitzvah. When I was a high school senior, I participated in a debate of the national Board of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, NFTY, at the time when President Carter had reinstituted draft registration. Our Texas-Oklahoma delegation led the fight to defeat a proposed resolution to oppose compulsory registration for the draft.

On June 27, 1981, my eighteenth birthday, I went to the tiny and dilapidated Post Office in Bruceville, Texas, near the Greene Family Camp. In that humble place, I registered for the draft that I prayed would never be. The draft never came to my life. Military service did, however, end up touching my life. Here in San Antonio, I have been blessed by coming to know so many of you, Mark Rogow included, who have served our country. We should be ashamed, even as we proclaim that we are grateful to you, for performing the mitzvah, even while your country stays home.

Amen.